I was hanging out with my good friend and OG ex-community guy for VMware John Troyer for a while last week at the Silicon Valley VMUG UserCon event, we were talking about VMUG events in general and he mentioned a recent blog post by Alastair Cooke entitled “Make VMUG great again“. Alastair’s post targets VMUG sponsors and how their breakout session presentations are often full blown marketing/sales pitches which is like kryptonite to VMUG attendees and not very well received.
I fully agree with his feedback, attendees at VMUG events are largely composed of the techy sysadmin types who are typically the decision influencers in their company when it comes to buying hardware and software. Trying to give a purely sales and marketing pitch to this type of crowd is like giving them Ambien, these events are intended to be as educational as possible to attendees and a sales pitch goes against the spirit of VMUGs.
One thing I don’t agree with though is the title of his post, VMUGs are great events already, like anything in life though there is always room for improvements. As someone who has been on both sides of the fence for almost 10 years as both a VMUG leader and sponsor as well as an attendee I thought I would give my 2 cents on how to make VMUG events better broken down by the role of each group at the event.
Before I do that one thing I would like to do is distinguish between VMUG UserCon’s and VMUG Local Group Meetings as this post is aimed mainly at UserCons although some of the same concepts apply (technical in nature).VMUG UserCon’s are not true VMUG events in the traditional nature of small groups, mostly users (no sponsors), technical audience and more frequently held. What UserCon’s are is just what the name implies, User Conferences, they are very similar to the VMworld event format and bear little resemblance to traditional User Group’s that were born in the 1970’s that you can read about here. With Local Group meetings you typically only have 1 sponsor that covers lunch costs, sometimes venue costs and they are run solely by the local VMUG Leaders and not the VMUG HQ. Local meetings are held more frequently (3-4 times a year), are smaller (25-150 people) then UserCon’s which are once a year and larger (350-1000) people.
[End Update] (another update at the end)
First off let’s look at the role of the sponsor, they are paying $6,000 – $10,000 to sponsor the event along with all the additional costs associated with executing the event such as staff travel, giveaways, etc. Without the sponsors there wouldn’t be VMUG events, in fact the quality of each VMUG event is driven by how many vendors sponsors it. The more sponsors there are the better the event will be as it provides a larger available budget for better food, amenities, keynote speakers and venues. Therefore it is in the best interest of the VMUG staff and leaders to make the sponsor experience as rewarding as possible to justify their ROI and keep them coming back to sponsor more events.
If you have a speaking session at a VMUG event, craft your presentation to be both technical and educational. Try and talk about technology in general without getting too deep into your products. It’s OK to have your product in the presentation but do it in a subtle manner that is no way a hard sell sales pitch. Make it both interesting and educational so an attendee learns something about technology and your product. Here’s an example of a session from a recent VMUG webcast from Zerto: “Ransonware and storage: Are You Prepared to Pay a Cryptolocker Ransom?”. If I was a customer that sounds like a great, interesting topic that I would be excited to hear about.
Next make sure your have a tech marketing person build the content for the session and not a pure marketing person unless they are tech savvy. Now that you have a great presentation, make sure you don’t have a sales guy present it, have someone technical that can speak at that level and answer questions appropriately. In the above mentioned Zerto session it was deliver by a technical architect. I guarantee you will have much better attendance at your session if you do this, most attendees can easily sniff out sessions that sound like sales pitches and will avoid going to them. As a sponsor I can bet you would much rather have 40 people listening to your session instead of 2.
Talking products and making sales pitches is not completely off-limits at a VMUG, just do it at your booth instead of in your session. At the session encourage people to come by your booth, if you delivered a good session people will come. If you want some guidelines for what to do and not do when it comes to VMUG sessions, just follow the same ones that VMware recommends for VMworld sessions and you can’t go wrong. If you want a quick sanity check on your content, reach out to the VMUG leaders and staff to have them look it over. If you want an example of a session I presented last week at the Silicon Valley VMUG, it was basically an updated version of this session that I did at VMworld last year, very educational with minimal product mentions. If you get an attendees attention with a good session with minimal sales pitch I think it will pay off better for you and they will think more favorably of you.
VMUG Leaders are local to a region/city and help organize the event and make decisions for executing the event. They are largely compromised of customers/end users and VARs as the VMUG staff doesn’t allow vendors to be VMUG Leaders. There role is mostly in the background as far as event planning goes as they work closely with the VMUG staff to plan and execute the event. The day of the event they become more visible often times delivering the welcome address in the morning and speaking to introduce keynote speakers and deliver the closing/recap of the event.
The VMUG Leaders are essentially the owners of the event for each city and have the responsibility to help ensure the event is a success by making key decisions such as approving vendor sessions. VMUG Leaders are volunteers and responsible for executing and planning both the smaller more frequent quarterly VMUG events and the larger UserCon yearly events. Generally VMUG Leaders take on the responsibility of being a leader as they are passionate about virtualization and want to share that with others. Most VMUG Leaders have a day job in addition to their duties associated with being a VMUG Leader.
I know a lot of VMUG Leaders personally and I think I can say they all do a pretty good job and I don’t have much feedback for them. As a sponsor my one big recommendation is don’t schedule our sponsor sessions at the same time as the VMware sessions. I did a big post on that a while back so you can read in detail why that is a bad thing for sponsors when that happens. Another suggestion I might have is to try and stop by and introduce yourself to your sponsors, I think this would help to cultivate a relationship between leaders and sponsors and would be a good opportunity to gather feedback from the sponsor about the event. This might even help to ensure that the sponsor returns the following year. Finally VMUG Leaders don’t be afraid to push back on sponsors that have sessions that you deem as to much of a sales/marketing pitch. Work with the sponsor to deliver a presentation that is more in line with attendee expectations of being educational in nature.
The VMUG HQ was formed back in 2010 after VMware recognized a need to have a dedicated team to run these types of events. Prior to that VMware had a small crew that worked directly with VMUG leaders. The VMUG staff is a very hard-working group that has overall responsibility for planning and executing the event in each city. They go out and find the sponsors, manage event finances, find venues, arrange catering and much more. Without them the UserCon events really wouldn’t be possible as the events are large with complex logistics that is just way too much for VMUG Leaders to handle. As VMUGs have evolved beyond local periodic events this group is also responsible for the other activities such as virtual events, webinars and newsletters.
As I attend many of these events in multiple cities a year I’ve gotten to know much of the staff pretty well and overall I can’t give them enough praise as they are very efficient at what they do and all the events are typically executed flawlessly. I got a chance to meet the new VMUG CEO, Brad Tompkins at the Silicon Valley VMUG and he seemed excited about his role and open to any suggestions for improvement. A few suggestions I might make for the VMUG Staff are first keep the leaders honest, by this I mean don’t be afraid to push back on things that you deem might not be in the sponsors best interest. On the flip side also keep the sponsors honest, also push back on sponsors for things that you deem might not be in the attendees best interest (i.e. sessions).
I’d suggest maybe a simple sponsor kit that includes a guidelines, video, checklists, FAQ and a Do’s and Don’ts for the event. I think many sponsors go into these events with no expectations or info on proper VMUG etiquette and a little guidance would go a long way to set expectations. Maybe highlight examples of good session abstracts. Also maybe make the session submission process a little more automated like the VMworld CFP is with a review process. I know scheduling everything throughout the day can be challenging but try and have 60 minute nothing but sponsor area time frame to give attendees more time with sponsors without distractions. Maybe have some type of Hall Crawl like they do at VMworld.
I really like the creative things that you have done with making the events a bit more fun and interactive, things like the special panels, demo areas, interactive vending machines, social media, etc. Keep it up as you are definitely making these events a lot more fun for both attendees and sponsors.
The people who attend VMUGs are largely a pretty technical group, they are your sysadmin types that work hands-on with technology every day. This group is typically the decision influencer at most IT shops, so it’s important for sponsors to have staff that can speak tech to these people. Most of these people don’t get to attend VMworld so these VMUG UserCon’s are like VMworld to them. Attendance varies by regions with events as small as 350 people and others up to 1,000 depending on how many nearby big cities that the event can pull from. You might be surprised to learn that Indianapolis is the biggest VMUG event in the US, the reason is all about their location as they pull attendees from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
In the latest VMUG sponsor prospectus some key facts about the attendee base are:
- 112,000 VMUG members world-wide
- 79% of their users are decision maker or decision influencers
- 83% of their users think more positively about sponsors that participate in VMUGs
- 89% of their users have been a VMware product user for more than 3 years
- 55% of their users plan to make significant investments in vSphere
First off, thank you for taking the time for attending these events, I hope you come away them from thinking they were worth your time and that you learned at least a few new things. I know a whole day away from your job can be tough some times, but please try and stay as long as you can to add more value to these events for the sponsors. I know the VMUG Staff does a good job with incentives for that such as awesome prizes at the end and sometimes beer. As a sponsor it’s discouraging to see the swag collector types, we love giving you stuff but would also love to have a brief conversation with you as well. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and engage with sponsors even if you’re the shy type, most sponsor I know of don’t bite. Also if there is something you don’t like or have any ideas for improving the events please give feedback to the event staff and also be sure and rate the sessions. If you’re attending a VMUG also make sure you download the VMUG app that has a lot of great info all in one place with all the up to the minute information about the event. Remember these events are all about you and I’m positive the leaders, staff and sponsors will do all they can to make the event more valuable for you.
I’ve always advocated at my company for VMUG sponsorship as I see the value in these events and it all has to do with getting in front of the attendees who are either your customers or potential customers. Even when one group wanted to pull out of these events as they were not seeing the value, I made the case for continued sponsoring them as long as we did it the right way. Doing that made all the difference in the world and we saw our ROI in these events dramatically improve. VMUG’s are great events, I think all sides can do a little better though and make them even greater and I hope some of my feedback here does just that. No matter what your role is at a VMUG event, feel free to reach out to me with questions, ideas, etc and I’ll pass them along to the appropriate people.
After this was posted their was some debate on social media on the true nature of VMUG events, mainly around going back to the origins of VMUGs and having customers/end users speak at the events. Why this is definitely a great idea, the reality is that it’s very hard to find customers that both want to talk and are comfortable with public speaking. This was confirmed by many who chimed in based on their experiences, they have tried to do this, mostly unsuccessfully. As most of the group is the techy/sysadmin types, this group tends to be just not comfortable speaking in larger group settings. I know based on my own experiences this is true as well, I’ve always struggled to find customers willing to do case studies and public speaking. I did however have one good success with this as we were able to get someone from the City of Phoenix Police Department to co-present at VMworld one year, he was a little nervous but did just fine.
I agree that this would be great to have at VMUG events, both Local Meetings and UserCon’s. I challenge the VMUG Staff to try and make this happen, it would be nice to have a User Track at the events that is compromised solely of user’s talking about real-life experiences and lessons learned. Again the reality is that it would be hard finding people in each city but it’s definitely worth a try as it would add even more value to the events. Also consider having a customer panel at the event and encouraging sponsors to engage with local customers to try and participate in their sponsor sessions. As many customers can be uncomfortable with public speaking also consider a mentoring program for them to help them acclimate to it. Anything that can be done to put the User back into the VMUG, not just as a attendee but also as a participant would be a good thing for all.